It’s confession time: I live in a vegetarian household, which means not only do I not eat meat, I also don’t wear clothes made out of fur or leather or anything else that was worn by an animal first. Most of the time. We have relaxed rules ’round here – secondhand leather is not a problem. I guess I could do secondhand fur, if I wanted to, but it’s not my thing. Sometimes, though, like-new secondhand this or that is just not available, and I have to go looking for an animal friendly substitute. And when I do, I’m often left wondering whether I am doing the green thing or the animal-friendly thing or both by buying a faux leather satchel or knee-high boots.
As it turns out, as much as I’d like to see leather and faux-leather duke it out in the enviro-ring, it’s not as easy as ‘two textiles enter, one textile leaves’ because faux leather is not just one textile.
Sometimes, faux leather is PVC, which does not biodegrade, leaches toxic nastiness in landfills, and emits dioxins when burned. Phthalates are what make PVC feel more like a leather bag and less like a plumber’s pipe. Lisa Finaldi, a Greenpeace Toxics Campaign Coordinator, has called PVC the most damaging plastic on the planet.
On the other hand, sometimes faux leather is made of polyurethane, which is apparently somewhat more environmentally-friendly to produce – no solvents are required to make it feel soft – and will apparently biodegrade because it’s designed to deteriorate after usage. It’s also hardier, with many PUs leather-tested for durability.
If asked, most people (I think) would say that real leather is always going to be greener than faux leather, but that’s not necessarily the case. To turn a hide into a nice soft material for jackets and bags requires a chemically-laden process that uses heavy metals and cyanide-based sollutions, as well as other unpleasant stuff. Industrial tanning, from what I’ve read, can be exceptionally harmful to the environment and the people who oversee the tanning process.
Then there’s factory farming – the US Environmental Protection Agency has stated that livestock pollution is the most damaging threat to American waterways.
But still, PU is a petroleum product, and there are recycled leather products and leathers that are tanned with enzymes instead of the usual chemicals. Unfortunately, an environmentally-friendly shopping spree will usually require the shopper to make certain trade-offs. If the choice is between leather and faux leather, it depends on the faux leather and it depends on the leather. How often are labels (or store employees) going to fully disclose what it is and where it came from? My guess is that unless you’re shopping somewhere rather high-end, not often.
Do you consider the source of your leather or the composition of your faux leather when buying a pair of shoes or an office chair?